Gucchi: The Honeycombed Delight of Extravagance
By Arka Chakarborty
Our beautiful world is filled with limitless possibilities when it comes to experiencing life’s joys through the taste buds. Such delectable delicacies as biriyani, kheer, parathas, dosas and vada pavs have graced most Indians with their simple yet unique magic. There are, however, some kinds of food which are reserved for the elite. Italy has its White Alba truffle, Iran its Almas caviar, Japan its Matsutake mushroom. Jammu & Kashmir is globally renowned for its high- quality and expensive saffron. What is relatively less well-known is gucchi- a seemingly innocuous species of mushroom found in high altitude areas which is exported both within and outside India and which can only be accessed by the super rich due to its sheer cost. One kilogram of this rare kind of mushroom costs somewhere between Rs. 10,000 and 50,000 and, perhaps ironically, this rare treat which can only be enjoyed at great expense serves as a lifeline for some of the Union Territory’s poorest rural and tribal communities.
The gucchi mushroom, also known as morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta) is a species of the family Morchellaceae of the Ascomycota. In the Kashmir valley, the mushroom is locally known as Kanegeich. In Jammu’s Doda district, this mushroom is called ‘thunthoo’ in the bhaderwahi dialect. It grows in areas with high altitudes (usually over 2000 m above sea level) and is found throughout numerous and diverse ecological regions ranging from coniferous forests to deciduous forests, alpine and sub-alpine pastures. Within these areas, this macrofungus generally finds a home in wood, decaying leaves and humus soil. Moreover, it may or may not be born in the same area or spot every year which makes the process of finding it even more difficult. Speaking in terms of modern political geography, gucchi is found mainly in Doda, Kishtwar, Anantnag, Kangan and Kupwara districts of Jammu & Kashmir. Outside the UT, it is also found in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The mushroom is born as a small grayish sponge with light ridges in the end of February or the beginning or March and quickly matures into a full- grown mushroom with a pale yellow cap supported by a white stem. The cap has deep pits and ridges, forming the signature honeycombed texture that the mushroom has become identified with. The shape of a mature gucchi mushroom’s cap varies from oblong to bulbous.
The factors that determine the exorbitant prices of the gucchi mushroom are not limited to its unique texture and unforgettable flavor. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that this mushroom cannot be cultivated commercially and is only found in the wild drives its prices sky-high in a global market that simply cannot get enough of it. This has created a seemingly paradoxical situation of a modern, sophisticated elite gourmet restaurant sub-culture built on the backbone of primitive gatherer economy. The gucchi mushroom is collected from the wild by local villagers. The participation of almost the entire community is required to secure a satisfactory annual collection which supplements the income of the villagers who are generally dependant on agriculture and herding. Village elders operate as sources of traditional knowledge regarding possible locations of gucchi mushrooms and how to distinguish them amid numerous other fungi. Women and children generally scour the outskirts of the forests for gucchi- women generally take children with them because the latter’s sharp senses and proximity to the ground help in identifying the right mushrooms. The men usually go deeper into the forest, taking the risk of facing possible danger to identify and gather more mushrooms. This collection generally takes place in March-April or July-August. After the mushrooms are successfully collected, they are sometimes sold fresh to merchants or preserved by smoking, sun-drying or salting. The rural collectors generally opt for the latter. Finally, the dried and/or salted mushrooms are packed in gummy bags or jars and sold to merchants. The whole process takes back-breaking work and is long and cumbersome. However, the village communities which function as gatherers of the gucchi mushroom willingly participate in this process because the economic returns in their point of view are well worth the efforts.
Unlike the fragrant saffron or the savory nadru, gucchi is not a part of the ordinary Kashmiri’s daily diet, chiefly because of its sheer cost that makes it almost inaccessible even to the middle class. It has historically been associated with royal cuisine. It is said that the Maharajas of Jammu & Kashmir used to gift the gucchi mushroom to other kings when they visited them. Today, the clientele of these macrofungi has expanded to the world’s economic elite. Dried and preserved gucchi is supplied across India and other regions like Japan, Thailand, Europe and North America. It is a part of the world’s gourmet restaurants, especially in the French and Catalan cuisines. In India, dishes like the gucchi pulao are ordered in high-end restaurants by those who can afford to flaunt their extravagant wealth. In Jammu & Kashmir itself, gucchi is only made a part of the lunch or dinner during special occasions and is usually prepared by professional cooks or wazas. These dishes are ritually served to the bride-groom and his friends by the family of the bride to display their opulence.
Among the numerous dishes prepared with gucchi in India in general and J&K in particular, the gucchi pulao is perhaps the most well-known. To prepare this dish, gucchi is generally boiled in water and then added to boiled rice and other ingredients tossed in ghee before pouring in some of the water the gucchi was previously soaked in. The finished dish has gucchi’s unique flavor and texture and is generally not accompanied by any condiment or side dish. Another prominent dish is zafrani gucchi matar which is prepared by cooking the mushrooms in saffron, cashews and tomato gravy and combined with peas. Gucchi yakhni (in this curd-based dish, gucchi serves as a luxury vegetarian substitute to mutton), gucchi kebab and gucchi ka shorba are some other tasty traditional dishes. Apart from being a treat to the taste buds, gucchi is also fantastic for one’s health. It contains carbohydrates, protein, fat, iron, manganese, potassium, copper, zinc, Vitamin D and several B- Vitamins. It helps in healing one’s damaged intestine and stomach. It is a great anti microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant which prevents heart diseases and diabetes by removing reactive oxygen species that harm the body. Medicinal usage of gucchi can be found in traditional unani treatises.
Many scientists have tried to uncover the secrets of the Morchella mushrooms by trying to figure out how to cultivate them commercially. All efforts so far, including one headed by the agricultural department of the government of Jammu & Kashmir, have come to naught. Hence, the whole gucchi economy is now dependant on the survival of the ecological habitats that serve as homes to the wild fungi. This is definitely a problem as the net forest cover of the UT is shrinking by the day. The diverse forests and pastures of J&K have to be rigorously protected in order to ensure that the communities dependant on the gathering of gucchi do not become impoverished. The government, thankfully, seems to have taken an interest in the protection of these communities. While the Geographical Indication (GI) tag was granted to the Kashmiri saffron, the government with the help of Border World Foundation, Jammu, has submitted an application to the Geographical Indication Registry to have the Doda Gucchi (gucchi found in the Doda district which is regarded as the best of J&K gucchi) recognized with the GI tag. Granting the GI tag will provide the Doda Gucchi legal protection by strictly prohibiting the fraudulent use of its name by others, thereby protecting the livelihoods of the rural vulnerable communities whose survival and prosperity depends on the successful trade or authentic gucchi mushroom.
The gucchi is one of the many Himalayan treasures that Jammu and Kashmir has been blessed with. From traditional medicine and royal gifts to luxury dinner platters of Indian and continental cuisine, gucchi has made the world a better place for human beings for quite some time. While it is a shame that most cannot experience the unique flavor and texture of this spongy fungal delicacy due to its mind-boggling price, the collection and export of this deluxe commodity also supports many of the poverty-stricken rural and tribal communities of the UT. The request for a GI tag for the Doda Gucchi is a positive step towards the protection of the livelihoods of these communities. However, the perhaps more long-term consequential issue of destructive climate change potentially affecting the gucchi mushroom’s future availability is yet to be addressed.